FAIRFIELD, NJ — Over the last several weeks of remote learning and social distancing, James Caldwell High School (JCHS) Vice Principal John Bertollo has been making the best of the unique situation occurring at his home in Fairfield.
In addition to facing various challenges with his two young children, 5-year-old Jackson and 2-year-old Mackinley, Bertollo is also navigating the new remote-learning model alongside his wife, Chrissy, who is a fellow vice principal at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Clifton.
According to Bertollo, balancing their own administrative responsibilities, such as “figuring out who is working with the children while the other is on a zoom or phone call,” along with “normal day-to-day occurrences of a five year old and a two year old, like dealing with meltdowns and five-second attention spans,” has been a challenge for the couple.
After the first few weeks, when Bertollo and his wife "started to feel a lot of energy in the house," they began discussing ways to “do something fun to contribute to [the Caldwell-West Caldwell and Clifton] school communities to lift everyone's spirits.” What they came up with was a homemade video that accomplished their goal of sending an uplifting message to their respective school communities while also finding a creative way to occupy their kids.
“We had just done a virtual spirit week in each of our schools, but we wanted to do something that would involve the whole household,” said Bertollo. “We thought it would be a lot of fun to use our children as ‘students’ at our ‘school.’”
Now nearing the end of the sixth week of distance learning, Bertollo said his and his wife’s jobs have become very similar within their respective districts.
He explained that their duties have included making sure students receive a Chromebook if one is needed; assisting faculty members with technology needs and answering any questions they have; explaining procedures; running Zoom or Google Meets meetings; and occasionally “popping into” virtual classrooms to touch base with the students and “just see how they are doing.”
“We are also responsible for communicating with counselors and case managers regarding students who are not doing well and need an outreach,” said Bertollo, who is also in charge of the school’s social media posts and has conducted interviews for open positions at JCHS.
However, Bertollo said the “biggest responsibility” he and his wife have both had is “trying to keep everyone feeling positive.”
“That is one of the main reasons why we made the video,” he said. “We thought if it could take everyone's minds off of things for a few minutes, it might help…
“That was also the reason why I made the video for the seniors. Knowing they aren't able to see their friends and teachers every day—as well as missing spring sports, awards ceremonies, prom and maybe graduation—I wanted to do something to spread positivity and let the seniors know that their administrators, teachers and community still love them and miss them and were still thinking about them.”
Bertollo recently created a video tribute to JCHS seniors that featured heartfelt messages from more than 80 members of the Caldwell-West Caldwell school community. (CLICK HERE to read the full story, or see the video below.)
Chrissy also recently published a similar video, which featured students and staff members holding various positive messages and “passing it off to each other to show that the students are still loved and being thought about.”
Since his children have some of their own responsibilities as well—with Jackson needing to attend his own Zoom meetings and complete distance-learning assignments and Mackinley receiving videos from her daycare of teachers reading stories and assigning activities to do at home—Bertollo said there have been many pros and cons to the remote-learning experience.
“The pros are getting to spend a considerable amount of time with our children each day and getting to be the ones to teach our children the important skills from school—neither of which we would get to do without distance learning,” said Bertollo. “But the cons outweigh the pros. It is truly heartbreaking when either child goes on a Zoom with their classmates and they see their friends and teachers. Knowing how difficult it must be for them and not fully understanding why they can't physically be with them has been difficult to witness first hand.”
The vice principal added that he feels “the same way about [JCHS] seniors” and that it has been challenging to “keep on top of students who are having difficulty completing work at home for a variety of reasons and not being able to just call them to my office to chat.”
“I can still reach out to them, but it has been more challenging than anticipated,” he said.
To his fellow parents who may be working remotely while also doing their best to guide their children through their distance learning, Bertollo said the “only advice [he] can give is to develop a schedule.”
“Jackson gets really, really off track quickly and unravels if he is not on some sort of schedule,” he said of his own experience. “Whether it's just setting up times to work, schedule brain breaks, or find time to go outside and enjoy the fresh air, schedules are super important to surviving and not driving yourself and everyone else crazy.”
He also noted that his wife, who leads a Positive Behavioral Support in Schools (PBSIS) program within her school, is currently creating a video for parents “on the benefits of positive reinforcement and how parents can implement the program at home with their kids during distance learning.”
“It is a great idea that we started to implement even before social distancing took over,” he said. “In her school, she uses Mustang Money, and at home we use ‘Bertollo Buck$.’”
Bertollo concluded that he and Chrissy "continue to discuss daily what else [they] can do for [their] students" and they still "have a few tricks" up their sleeves.